The following blog contains info that may ultimately save you or a loved ones life, or help them manage a condition. Knowledge is power, and vitamin E is a powerhouse.
When you think vitamin E, think fat. Not the kind of fat that you WANT to lose, but the healthy kind that you want to protect. The kind that lines every cell membrane in our body, regulates hormone production, manages cholesterol, lubricates joints, helps determine what kind of mood we are in… you know, the fundamentals.
Fats, technically known as lipids, play so many crucial roles in our wellness, but just like all other substances in our body, they can become oxidized and lose their functional integrity. Studies have been done, with exciting results, on the power of vitamin E as our primary Lipid Antioxidant (keeps fats from oxidizing).
What does it prevent? What happens when fat oxidizes in the body? What are the best sources of it? We’ll answer all of these questions this week, after a quick rundown of it’s structure.
Why would anyone ever need or want to know the different forms of vitamin E?
Because, in case you haven’t noticed, the world of wellness is made up of two kinds of people. Those who want to help others feel their best and live long, healthy lives, and those who are only in it for the money. Taking care of ourselves means knowing what our bodies need and when. The internet is full of both useful information and an epidemic level of BS. Learning the forms of vitamin E can help guide you when reading nutrition labels at the grocery and on supplements on which products deserve your trust and hard earned money. Just as some multi-vitamins are made from natural sources, and some are synthetic, laboratory analogues of the real thing, so is the case with vitamin E. Some studies show that generic, synthetic supplements and food additives of vitamin E are not only worthless to your health, but can even contribute to the formation of cancer!
Weeding through the web…
An essential nutrient for the body, vitamin E is made up of four tocopherols (alpha, beta, gamma, delta) and four tocotrienols (alpha, beta, gamma, delta). The slight difference between tocotrienols and tocopherols lie in the unsaturated side chain having three double bonds in its farnesyl isoprenoid tail.
The best sources are natural compounds found in select vegetable oils, including grapeseed oil, rice bran oil and palm oil, wheat germ, barley, saw palmetto, anatto, and certain other types of seeds, nuts, grains, and the oils derived from them.
Because the vitamin activity was first identified in 1936 from a dietary fertility factor in rats, it was given the name “tocopherol” from the Greek words “τόκος” [tókos, birth], and “φέρειν“, [phérein, to bear or carry] meaning in sum “to carry a pregnancy,” with the ending “-ol” signifying its status as a chemical alcohol. Humans being silly, the discovery was picked up in the media as being able to “make you sexy”.
Athough alpha-tocopherol is the best known family member, it’s other siblings are just as important. Unfortunately, modern day food processing routinely depletes our food supply of all forms of natural vitamin E, which leaves many of us deficient in this key antioxidant. Synthetic alpha-tocopherol is the primary form of vitamin E added to foods that normally do not contain any E. This is also what most supplements contain. It is vitally important to human physiology to get mixed tocopherols and tocotrienols, in more than just their alpha forms. Look for a natural source (ie: derived from a nut, or seeds, wheat germ, etc.).
About half of all U.S. adults take vitamin E supplements, but most contain only one kind of vitamin E, alpha-tocopherol, but not the others. If you are just taking alpha tocopherol you are missing out on the full range of benefits offered by the vitamin E family. If you are not getting your daily E, I recommend taking a vitamin E supplement that includes the entire spectrum of all the natural vitamin E’s, tocopherols AND tocotrienols.
Chemically, vitamin E in all of its forms functions as an antioxidant. That’s why it exists. You cannot understand the benefits of vitamin E unless you know the basic function of antioxidants (bear with me for 2 paragraphs)
Antioxidants are substances that neutralize cell damaging free radicals. All of the tocotrienol and tocopherol isomers have this antioxidant activity due to the ability to donate a hydrogen atom (a proton plus electron) to a free radical in the body. This process inactivates (“quenches”) the free radical by effectively donating a single unpaired electron (which comes with the hydrogen atom) to the radical.
Free radical formation is a natural by-product of metabolism, but it is also heavily affected by diet, stress, pollution, and lifestyle (as is everything else, physiologically). There is a natural balance, but modern living has upset it. Food chemicals, cigarette smoke, smog, sugar, refined foods, daily stress, and more all cause different chemical reactions that lead to formation of free radicals. Since it is an exchange of atoms that upsets the balance, one cell can set off a domino effect, called a cascade, and this is how damage occurs.
E = Extraordinary
“Other than preventing miscarriage in rodents, researchers didn’t really connect vitamin E with physiology in the beginning. At the time, there was no evidence that fats were actually oxidized in the body. Ironically, it was already being used as a food additive to prevent polyunsaturated fats in cooking oils from going rancid.
Then, a groundbreaking experiment in 1954 conducted by A.L. Tappel, a renowned biochemist at the University of California at Davis, finally proved that the same manner which vitamin E prevented the fats in food from going rancid from oxidation also prevented the fats in our body from going rancid from the same enemy-oxygen. The oxidation of fat in the body is called lipid peroxidation and is now believed to be the underlying cause of heart disease. Most importantly, Dr. Tappel showed that he could prevent lipid peroxidation dead in its tacks.
What makes vitamin E unique is its ability to maneuver through the fatty parts of the cell membrane, which are inaccessible to other antioxidants. Only vitamin E can move in this medium, targeting and quenching free radicals on the way. Since vitamin E is soluble in fat, and not in blood, which is primarily water, in order to travel through the blood stream, vitamin E must be carried in a complex particle called a lipoprotein. That word should sound familiar, it is cholesterol.
There are several types of lipoproteins, depending on the types of fats they transport. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) delivers cholesterol to the tissues, high density lipoprotein (HDL) carries it back to liver to be excreted. Practically single handedly, vitamin E protects lipoproteins from free radical damage, or oxidation, the same process that turns butter rancid. Vitamin E is often called a “chain-breaking” antioxidant because it halts the biochemical chain of events that leads to the spread of free radicals, which can seriously damage lipids and proteins.
Heart disease begins when LDL invades the lining of the capillary/coronary wall and becomes oxidized. Under ideal conditions, the vitamin E in the LDL will trap the free radical and destroy it. In the process, the vitamin E becomes a weak free radical itself. If you’ve been eating lots of vegetables and fruits, the then your body will have other important antioxidants circulating, too.
If the antioxidant network is working well, vitamin C or lipoic acid will then recharge the vitamin E, turning it back into an antioxidant. However, if the network is overwhelmed-that is, if the body is under a great deal of oxidative stress-the vitamin E will not be recycled, and the lipoprotein will be defenseless against free radical attack. Lipids and proteins will suffer oxidative damage triggering the formation of plaque, which can clog arteries. As the plaque deposits grow, key arteries can become narrowed, compromising the flow of blood to the heart.
The ultimate cause of heart disease is a failure of the body’s antioxidant network to do its job. Bolstering vitamin E and the entire antioxidant network (we’ll cover this topic next week)
Doctors Ishwarlal Jialal and Sridevi Devaraj of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center studied the effect of 1,200 I.U. (international units) of vitamin E on the level of oxidized LDL in twenty one healthy subjects. At the end of eight weeks, the susceptibility of LDL to become oxidized decreased an average of 40%. They also saw a decrease in the amount of free radicals released by monocytes white cells that gobble up oxidized LDL and initiate the atherosclerosis process. Here was evidence that vitamin E stopped the onset of heart disease at its earliest stage. More important, Dr. Jialal found that it takes a minimum of 400 I.U. of vitamin E daily to protect LDL from oxidation.
In another study published in 1996, researchers examined the degree of blockage in coronary arteries. They found remarkable inverse correlation between severity of the disease and the amount of vitamin E in LDL. Patients with the highest content of vitamin E in the LDL had the lowest degree of blockage; patients with the lowest content of vitamin E in their LDL had the highest degree of blockage.
Clearly, the amount of vitamin E in LDL can make a profound difference in terms of developing heart disease and how fast the disease progresses.
Free radical attack on lipids and proteins can also damage DNA, the genetic material within the cell, which can lead to cancer. Quenching free radicals is not the only way vitamin E can help keep cancer at bay. Many antioxidants, vitamin E in particular, appear to play a much greater role in regulating body stems than was ever believed possible.
Vitamin E is involved in signaling pathways that turn on or off genes and regulate cell growth. In particular, researchers such as Angelo Azzi, in Bern, Switzerland have found that vitamin E inhibits protein kinase C activity, which activates enzymes that stimulate tumor growth.
Numerous studies confirm that people who eat diets rich in vitamin E and other antioxidants have significantly lower rates of cancer than those who don’t. Other studies have linked low levels of vitamin E with an increased risk of many different kinds of cancer, especially prostate and lung cancer. In fact, Katalin G. Losonczy a researcher with the National Institute on Aging, studied there consumption of vitamin E among 11,798 people ages 65 to 105. She found that those who took vitamin E supplements daily were 41% less likely to have died from cancer and 40% less likely to have died from heart disease, than people who didn’t take vitamin E.
Into the future, and beyond…
Studies such as these beg the question about whether people who take vitamin E will live longer than those who don’t. There is no simple answer to this question, but all signs point to a resounding yes. We’ve made many advancements towards extending lifespan, but antioxidants also enhance the quality of life in those later years and set the stage for healthy aging.
In studies of human cells, we have wonderful evidence that vitamin E can prevent aging on the cellular level. Long before we SEE the effects of aging, subtle changes are occurring to our cells. One of the tell tale signs of aging is the accumulation of an age pigment called lipofuscin, primarily in the brain and heart. Lipofuscin is the direct result of lipid peroxidation, or oxidation of the proteins and lipids. In other words, our cells become rancid.
David Deamer, Ph.D., at the University of California at Davis performed an experiment that dramatically shows the effect of vitamin E on cellular aging. He grew young cells in a culture of 10 percent serum in which they grew normally and did not show signs of lipofuscin until they reached a ripe old age. He then grew the same type of cells in a low serum medium in which they were nutrient-deprived and could divide or repair themselves as needed. Under these conditions, they accumulated a huge amount of age pigment early in their life span, a sign of premature aging. If you look at these cells under a microscope, you can clearly see a mass of yellow that you do not see in the normal young cells, a sign of premature aging.
However, when Dr. Deamer grew these cells in a nutrient deprived environment but added 100 micrograms of vitamin E, they did not develop lipofuscin. The cells remained “young”.
It’s never too late for vitamin E
The good news is, even if you have heart disease, it’s not too late to benefit from vitamin E. The most dramatic study was done on patients who had already had a heart attack. The results were shocking, with 77% fewer heart attacks in the following 510 days in those who supplemented with vitamin E, vs placebo. It was such a success that the study was ended early and all participants were prescribed vitamin E.
Without explaining how the immune system works, let’s just say that vitamin E can boost immune function in older animals and humans, but until recently, there haven’t been any convincing studies. Researchers at USDA Human Nutrition Center at Tufts University have proven that vitamin E not only works in test tubes and animals but can stimulate immune function in older people as well.
In their study, eighty eight people ages sixty-five plus were given either 60, 200, or 800 I.U of vitamin E daily for four months. At the end of the four month period, they reported the following:
- A significant increase in T and B cell activity in those who took vitamin E
- Those people who took vitamin E showed more vigorous immune response to delayed hypersensitivity skin response, hepatitis B, and tetanus vaccine.
- Study participants were also asked to keep track of all infections (such as colds, viruses, and sore throats) that occurred during the four month period. The people who took vitamin E reported a 30% lower incidence of self reported infections than people who did not taker vitamin E.
Some 4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, and by 2020, experts predict that it could rise to over 10 million. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, although there are some drugs that may forestall the progress of the disease for some people.
Animal and test tube studies have strongly suggested that vitamin E may play a role in preventing Alzheimer’s disease by protecting brain cells against free radical attack. Numerous experiments have demonstrated that vitamin E (along with Coenzyme Q10, the other fat-soluble antioxidant) can reduce lipid peroxidation in the brain. What’s even more exciting is that a recent multi-institution double blind, placebo controlled study conducted by the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study showed that vitamin E worked even BETTER than standard drug therapy.
In this study, a total of 341 patients with early Alzheimer’s disease of moderate severity were divided into four groups. The first group received 10 milligrams of selegiline, a standard medication, and the second group was given 200 I.U. of vitamin E, the third group selegiline and vitamin E, and the fourth was given a placebo.
After 2 years, the researchers reported that the risk of reaching the most severe stages of Alzheimer’s disease was 53% lower in the group taking vitamin E alone, 43% lower in the drug group, 31% lower in the combination group than in the group taking the placebo. Of all of these treatments, vitamin E alone worked the best” (Packer, 1998).
Based on a growing number of studies that show vitamin E and other antioxidants protecting against brain aging, delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, or even preventing it from happening in the first place, it would not be an overreaction to call your parents and ask them about their vitamin E intake and help them understand the benefits.
I was in a discussion last week with a doctor about the diseases that never happen and how that’s where our biggest success lies. You can’t put these facts into a study or review because you can’t document what never happens. The benefits of food as medicine are being proven every day, but it’s the unquantifiable prevention of countless diseases and disorders that are the brightest testimonial to eating well.
Learning the basics of nutrition keeps the information on your mind and starts to positively effect food decisions. The health benefits of this are practically instant. I hope you enjoyed the amazing evidence on vitamin E and will begin to be conscious of your sources today!
Sincerely yours in health,
For more information on the antioxidant capabilities and other studies on vitamin E and the network antioxidants, I highly recommend The Antioxidant Miracle, by Dr. Lester Packer and Carol Coleman. Dr. Packer is a leading researcher in the antioxidant field. The book is a small paperback and is an easy and enjoyable read. Excerpts from this book make up the latter section of this blog.
About Chef Brandon
Chef Brandon Schlunt is co-owner of HealthSavor, a Cincinnati Ohio based healthy, organic, gluten-free meal delivery service, created to help busy families, individuals and children eat nutritious meals easily and affordably. Chef Brandon focuses on helping his customers lose weight, lower their blood sugar and feels very honored to have earned the trust of many doctors, students, parents, athletes, and on-the-go businessmen and women all over the city. In his non-existent spare time, Chef B enjoys music, hanging with his daughter and fiance, and continuing his education in nutrition.Join The HealthSavor Newsletter Here ORDER TODAY!